listen up

Clara Rottsolk, photo Tatiana Daubek

The Loretto Chapel is especially lovely at Christmastime, when its white, neo-Gothic interior is lightly bedecked with seasonal greenery. The holiday concerts given there annually by Santa Fe Pro Musica Baroque Ensemble generally make it sound as good as it looks. It is a dependably classy event, with the instrumentalists, performing serious but not ponderous repertoire on 18th-century-style instruments, being joined by one of two singers who divide the vocal duties over the run of the concerts. The group offered 12 go-rounds spread across three days, each accommodating just 139 listeners, which ensured an intimate concert experience.

The roster of instrumentalists was lightly tweaked this year to yield a group of eight well-matched players. The most notable change was the inclusion of a theorbo, a bass lute. Played here by Pablo Champion, it rarely called much attention to itself, but it added subtle definition to a rich-toned basso continuo group of cello, double bass, and organ. These were offset by the ensemble’s treble component of two violins, viola, and, in several numbers, flute.

The group defined its character from its opening piece, a suite from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. This 1692 masque, distantly derived from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is chockablock with Purcell’s inviting melodies and quirky rhythms. The ensemble infused their eight movements with well-blended, resonant timbre, carefully calibrated gradations of volume, and a style that conveyed interpretative ideas with clarity. The same could be said of their treatment of the Sonata Duodecima by Anna Isabella Leonarda, who served as mother superior of a convent in Novara, Italy, and, with the 1693 collection that includes this work, became the first woman to publish sonatas. The piece is conservative in style and a touch long-winded, with phrases repeating often in its 10 minutes. Still, violinist Stephen Redfield, the ensemble’s leader, imbued it with a precise profile through meticulous articulation and expressive abandon, which extended to some pitch-bending that lent an exotic Middle Eastern flavor in one episode.

Carol Redman was the adept soloist in a Telemann Flute Concerto in G major, the dense, veiled tone of her Baroque flute lending a haunted quality to the slow movements. As its third movement (Largo) died away on an E, a church bell tolled outside at precisely the same pitch — a reminder of how live performances can be enriched by opportune coincidences. The performance I attended (the earlier of two on Dec. 21) featured Clara Rottsolk as the vocal soloist. She possesses a bright-toned, flexible lyric soprano voice with a strong lower register. She put it to good use in Vivaldi’s Nulla in mundo, a motet set to a weird poem about the deceptions of the world and how blossoms may conceal a venomous serpent — though hope, it insists, nonetheless resides in Jesus. The music is standard-issue Vivaldi that turns especially florid in a concluding “Alleluia.” Rottsolk negotiated the work’s demands with lithe brilliance. The chapel’s acoustic is not always helpful to singers at louder dynamics. Here, Rottsolk’s tone bounced back at her, sometimes obscuring the fluid delicacy of her embellishments. This proved less problematic in a set of early Christmas carols, where she hewed to a lighter timbre, but the issue resurfaced in the rollicking “Alleluia” from Handel’s motet Silete venti, in which she returned to a more operatic mode to end the concert.

Aficionados of early music filled Christ Lutheran Church to capacity for “The Holie Eve,” a concert of medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque Christmas music performed on Dec. 16 by Música Antigua de Albuquerque. Longtime directors Art and Colleen Sheinberg assembled a program comprising 31 musical selections and eight readings that worked through topical chapters: “Rejoice, O Shepherds,” “King Herod and the Magi,” and so on. It practically served as a textbook of historical genres, from plainchant, organum, and trouvère songs through to relatively grand 17th-century motets by Hans Leo Hassler and Michael Praetorius. All were worthy pieces, but by the end of two-and-a-quarter hours (including an intermission plus a medical emergency in the audience), the pews grew hard indeed.

The group draws on a large variety of early instruments. This was entertaining, in its way, although the performers handled them with the delight of devoted amateurs rather than as truly polished virtuosos. They adhered to an approach that was prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s, not reflecting that the early-music world has largely moved on since then. Many of the pieces were orchestrated with additive instrumentation, the players joining in gradually to build up to a climax. The ensemble’s setting of the well-known villancico “Ríu, ríu, chíu” involved drumming rather in the style of Xavier Cugat, against which Colleen Sheinberg intoned the song with sweet tone and sincere expression. The spoken texts, presented by Kathy Millé Wimmer, proved ever engaging, especially those that she rendered — and made surprisingly comprehensible — in Middle English.

THE Santa Fe Symphony presented a Christmas Eve concert at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, directed by its principal conductor, Guillermo Figueroa. The first half was constructed to highlight different groups from within the orchestra. First up were eight brass players, who gave workmanlike readings of three canzonas by Giovanni Gabrieli. Since these works are mainstays of the brass chamber repertoire, one wondered why Figueroa felt it necessary to direct the players. In the event, there was little arc in their phrasing, and the conducting was not much more than time-beating. Then followed the “Trio of the Young Ishmaelites” from Berlioz’s oratorio L’enfance du Christ, a gentle movement for two flutes and harp, pleasantly rendered. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks received a sometimes tentative run-through that provided opportunities for the oboes and horns to shine, although Figueroa led a surprisingly flaccid interpretation of the work’s overture and then repeated part of it as a musically illogical conclusion to the suite.

The second half of the concert featured the formidable piano duo Anderson & Roe, frequent visitors to Santa Fe, and they inspired the orchestra to snap to attention. Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos is one of the duo’s signature pieces, and they executed it with great spirit and sensitivity. Greg Anderson seemed slightly off his game in the first movement; my guess is that his piano’s action was regulated more heavily than he would have liked. This caused only momentary roughness in some trills and rapidly descending scales, and it impinged little on the overall effect. The middle movement, in part a salute to Mozart, began with elegant lyricism and progressed to almost Rachmaninoff-like passion. The finale was not quite so quickly paced as in some interpretations (perhaps in deference to Anderson’s sluggish Steinway), but it was nonetheless vivacious and filled with buoyant wit. The most spellbinding moments of the performance came in the spots where Poulenc has the pianists imitate an Indonesian gamelan, at the concerto’s outset and then at the end of each movement: pure magic.

The duo also played a Carmen Fantasy created by Anderson out of themes from Bizet’s opera. As much an original composition as an arrangement, it is clever, technically difficult, and sophisticated in its rhythm, harmonies, and textural interlocking — which is to say that it is custom-crafted to the strengths of this duo. For an encore, Anderson & Roe offered their sparkling arrangement of “America” from West Side Story, to close out the Leonard Bernstein centennial year. It started as a setting for four-hands at one piano, but you just knew both pianos would be pressed into service by the time they were done. It proved to be a showpiece of performance choreography as well musicianship, with the pianists intertwining, changing places on the bench, and scurrying from one piano to the other without missing a beat. ◀